By Sue Moore
Hidden away in a corner of Prairie View Park in Schoolcraft Township is a family cottage that Kalamazoo County is attempting to acquire via condemnation. The family that owns the property fronting on Gourdneck Lake is fighting to keep it.
Family members have filed an injunction to stop the taking.
“How could they take this away from our family?” asks Judy Heeter, one of five sisters and two brothers who share tenants-in-common ownership. The small slice of hillside property on the lake has been in the family since 1949. It has been passed down through three generations who say they always intended to keep it in the family.
The Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners in a Sept. 3 closed session agreed to move forward on condemnation. That decision was placed on a consent calendar and approved in an open session at a board meeting the same day, setting up the family’s effort to fight for the property to the bitter end, according to Judy’s husband, Jim Heeter.
Prairie View Park is a hidden gem among Kalamazoo County parks. It sits on high ground on the south end of Gourdneck Lake contiguous to the state’s game area to the west, with access from U Avenue. There are two homes in between that have a lane back through the woods off of U Avenue.
The Johnson and Talanda families lack that easy access. Instead, their property, landlocked by the park, is accessed only from a park road which is the right of way to the property. Family members have keys to the park’s gates supplied through past negotiations with the county.
That goes back to a 1963 agreement struck with the county when Prairie View Park was acquired as parkland in 1960. The Johnson and Talanda families were the signees in 1963.
Development of the property for cottages can be traced back to 1922, when 27 lots were platted on the lake front, called Point Gloria. The rest of the acreage was farmland accessed from U Avenue. In 1949, when Ed and Dorothy Talanda bought the property that the cottage sits on now, they used it as a summer home and stayed there on their honeymoon.
Ed went off to medical school and subsequently needed help to pay the taxes on the property. The extended family of Johnsons and Stenders stepped in and set up a joint tenant agreement with full right of survivorship. That included the Stender family of the Vicksburg area. Now it is all owned by the five sisters, two brothers and their spouses in the Johnson family and the Talanda Trust.
The county contends that when the last survivor of those signing the 1963 agreement passed away, the land has to be sold to the county.
County officials declined comment on the matter. Parks and Recreation Director Dave Rachowicz said he could not comment since the issue was under litigation. The county’s corporate counsel did not return phone calls. John Gisler, the county commissioner, whose district includes the park, said he couldn’t comment and referred the family to Corporate Counsel Beth White.
“You can’t even put a dollar amount on the property as far as our family is concerned,” says Judy Heeter, one of the five sisters. “We would never sell. If any family member should want out of the agreement, they don’t get any money, they can just bow out and go their own way.”
“We all love it because it’s close. We live in Portage, so it’s very convenient. We have family reunions, celebrate birthdays together. All the cousins get to know each other because they can come out here and swim and play all summer long,” one of the sisters, Jayne Engels, says. “It’s one way to live on a lake and not break the bank.”
Engels claims they are very careful with the cars that come with guests to hang out in the summer. Since the slice of land will only hold about 10 cars, they do buy a yearly pass from the county so they can accommodate the whole family on special occasions.
Ed Sharp, park ranger for the county from 1973 to 2006 and a Vicksburg resident, remembers riding his horse back on the 208 acres of property as a teenager. His grandfather, Edwin Southworth, was the Brady Township supervisor in 1963 when the deal was struck with the Talanda and Johnson families. Southworth told the county Board of Supervisors, as it was called then, that the county didn’t need this piece of property for the park to be functional. A deal was struck in 1963.
“The Johnson family took care of the property and were easy to get along with,” Sharp says. “Not quite so for the Talanda family; they didn’t much like to abide by the rules. I had to kick people out all the time when they were having parties back there. I just had to enforce the rules and had to collect admittance fees at times.”
Engels says her family has been using the property for 57 years and there has never been one incident. “We’ve even signed a liability form. This house was made for kids. It’s not gorgeous. We come out and don’t have to clean up after everyone. We open in mid-May when the whole family comes out to put the dock in and close in October.”
Rick Blakeslee, a husband of one of the sisters, claims the county according to a 2016 budget spent $125,000 to run the park while taking in $85,000 in fees, thus losing approximately $40,000 per year according to the last budget from 2016 posted online.
The county’s $63,000 offer is based on the state equalized valuation for the property as of 1986, when the ownership changed from joint tenancy to tenants in common so they could pass it on to their heirs. The county officials say the terms of the 1963 agreement were violated.
“We have spent thousands of dollars to try and keep the property and we don’t plan on giving up,” Jim Heeter says.